State Senator Page Cortez

State Senator Page Cortez, R-Lafayette 

Off-track betting parlors around Louisiana could get hundreds of slot machine-like devices under legislation approved by the House Monday.

Senate Bill 209 would legalize an electronic gambling machine not currently in Louisiana known as historical horse racing.

Supporters say it will benefit the horse racing industry.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has been the prime mover behind the legislation.

Cortez introduced the idea two weeks ago when he took the extraordinary step of appearing before the House Commerce Committee alongside the sponsor of Senate Bill 209, Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco. The committee approved a Cortez amendment to allow the historical horse racing machines.

The only identified lobbyist for a company poised to benefit from the machines is Joel Robideaux, a former state representative and mayor from Lafayette who is Cortez’s next-door neighbor. Robideaux is registered as a lobbyist for ELS Gaming, which on its website touts the economic benefits of historical horse racing at a Virginia racetrack, where it introduced the machines.

Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative religious-affiliated group concerned about the social ills caused by gambling, expressed the strongest opposition to SB209, in a floor note passed to legislators.

“Once again, we are being asked to roll the dice approve a massive expansion of gambling which was introduced late in the legislative process and with many curiously unanswered questions,” he wrote.

In approving the bill Monday on an 84-11 vote, the House paid little heed to Mills and approved changes handled by Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, that would scale back what Cortez sought. The Senate still must approve the House’s version of the bill.

Cortez put no limits on the number of historical horse racing machines and didn’t require voter approval in any fashion.

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Louisiana’s Senate president has twice taken actions that helped lobbyist pal

The House version approved Monday would limit each off-track betting parlor to 50 machines and would require parish voters to approve new OTBs. Stefanski said existing law means that voters have no approval over putting the machines in existing OTBs.

Under current state law, each parish can have up to two OTBs. That doesn't count for the New Orleans Fair Grounds, which has 13 within a 55-mile radius. Other tracks can have up to five OTBs under the legislation. At these facilities, bettors engage in what is known as pari-mutuel wagering.

Players at OTBs bet on horse races, with the size of the payouts depending on how many people have placed money on it. They are an alternative to going to an actual racetrack, where races occur on a limited schedule.

Historical horse racing allows players to bet on past races on a device that looks like a slot machine. Players can see the odds for each horse but don’t have their names or know when or where the race occurred. Stefanski told House members that this introduces a level of skill in the betting. But studies show that many players skip the actual race, eliminating the skill factor, and just let the machine pick the winner.

“These are rapid-bet electronic gambling devices almost indistinguishable from slot machines,” wrote Mills. “They allow a new bet at the punch of a button as fast as once every three seconds. Yes, they ‘allow’ gamblers to look up information on horses and choose to bet on a horse. But no bettor ever does. At an average of 8 seconds per bet, there's no research occurring.”

Under the bill, revenue from betting losses will be divided between the horsemen and purses. Stefanski acknowledged that it does not generate any direct additional tax revenue for the state.

“This is directly designed to increase the purses so we can have a more competitive horse racing industry,” Stefanski said in an interview.

In an unusual twist, the legislation would allow the machines to be installed on an expedited basis. Not allowing this, according to the bill, would constitute “a matter of peril to public health, safety and welfare.”

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.